Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

How should we dream of this place without us?

That’s the line from Richard Wilbur’s “Advice to a Prophet” that really jumps out at me–line ten, just over a quarter of the way through the poem–and it stays with me through the end.

I used this poem in my creative writing class this morning as an example for their next prompt (yes, I give my students prompts for poems–it keeps me from getting 15 “my life is an angsty dark hole” poems each week) which is to write a “how to” poem. I hadn’t read it all that closely before yesterday, but that idea, the notion of our inability to conceive a world without us in it, has been nagging at me ever since.

Wilbur precedes that question with the line “Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race,” and given the imagery from earlier in the poem along with the fact that it was written in 1961, it’s pretty clear that he’s writing about the constant threat of nuclear war that hung over that generation and the one that followed it.

But the same concept certainly applies today, and could be part of the reason why it has taken so long for humans to accept the reality of other problems that threaten human existence–or at least the continuation of it at this level of technology. Global warming? No way, say the skeptics. Humans could never do that level of damage. But climate change has made lots of other species go extinct over the years–why not humans? Yes, we have a greater ability to change our environment than that of any other animal, but we’re also capable of screwing things up so bad that we can’t survive the aftermath.

It’s a failure of the imagination if we’re unable to conceive of an earth without humans, and it’s a failure we can’t afford.

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October 3, 2008 - Posted by | Advice to a Prophet, Richard Wilbur

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